America’s 16 Most Stunning Underrated National Parks
In the last couple of years, more people than ever before have discovered the wonders of America’s national parks.
According to the National Park Service, 15 national parks set visitation records in 2020 alone! I’m thrilled that so many people have a newfound love for The Great Outdoors, but I honestly don’t love the crowds. And the traffic. And having to reserve campsites as early as a year out.
So as much as I genuinely love exploring our country’s spectacular public lands — I’m a literal card-carrying member of the national parks-obsessed club, after all — I’ve turned my attention to our underrated national parks.
True, they don’t necessarily have iconic features like Yosemite’s Half Dome, Angels Landing in Zion, or the mystifying geothermal features of Yellowstone. But they were designated national parks for a reason, and I can’t help but wonder what I might be missing out on.
I turned to several fellow adventurous national parks lovers for an answer: what are America’s most underrated national parks? Read on to find out (and to start planning your next trip!).
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The most underrated national parks in the US
Awe-inspiring natural rock arches in Utah. Volcanic lakes in the Pacific Northwest. Florida’s underwater natural playgrounds. The country’s underrated national parks are home to some incredible wonders.
Big Bend National Park, Texas
Tucked away in Southwest Texas, Big Bend National Park is more difficult to reach than many other national parks. It is this remote location that has allowed it to remain a bit of a hidden gem — and definitely one of the most underrated national parks in the US.
If you undertake the journey to Big Bend, you’ll be rewarded with an incredibly biodiverse desert and mountain landscapes. It is also a hiker’s paradise with over 200 miles of trails to explore, from short day hikes to long multi-day trails.
Insider tip: While there are many incredible sights in Big Bend, including the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, Santa Elena Canyon, Chisos Basin, Hot Springs, and more, what really sets the park apart is its night skies!
Big Bend is home to the darkest skies in the lower 48 states and is an International Dark Sky Park, so make sure you plan to stay into the night!
Fun fact: Big Bend National Park sits directly on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Where to stay near Big Bend National Park: Big Bend is a great place for camping under a blanket of stars. There are three front-country campgrounds within the park, or for the more adventurous, backcountry camping is allowed with a permit.
Contributed by Sophie and Adam from We Dream of Travel
Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Canyonlands National Park is truly one of our most underrated national parks, offering four distinct districts. Each one has unique scenery, activities, and entrances: Island in the Sky, The Needles, The Maze, and the Green and Colorado Rivers.
These four districts of Canyonlands National Park really allow it to stand out by offering a wide variety of outdoor activities, all in one national park. You’ll find there’s something for everyone!
Visit Island in the Sky for sweeping views, roadside viewpoints, and short hikes surrounded by beautiful scenery, like Mesa Arch. Try The Needles for longer day hikes on stunning, uncrowded trails, particularly Chesler Park Loop or the Druid Arch Trail.
If you’re into backcountry camping and hiking, The Maze and its confusing canyons are for you! And lastly, if you’d rather take in some watersports, head down to the rivers for sunset boat cruises and whitewater rafting. With so many different options available, Canyonlands National Park is sure to astound you!
Insider tip: Pack a blanket to stargaze! Canyonlands is open 24 hours a day and is stunning around the clock. Sunrise and sunset really illuminate the bright red rocks, particularly near Mesa Arch, and you won’t want to miss the dark night skies that bring out millions of stars.
Fun fact: The iconic ending scene from Thelma & Louise was filmed in Canyonlands. 127 Hours depicts the true story of a rock climber who gets stuck in a slot canyon in The Maze and has to free himself.
Where to stay near Canyonlands National Park: If you’re on a tight budget, check out the Lazy Lizard Hostel, the (literal!) cheapest hostel in the country. Otherwise, the Hoodoo Moab makes a fabulous home base for a slightly more luxurious visit!
Contributed by Julia from The Cure for Curiosity
Looking for more things to do near Canyonlands National Park? Check out these adventurous Moab activities!
Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
Another extremely underrated but absolutely spectacular national park in Utah is Capitol Reef.
The park is tucked into the southern part of the state (with a seemingly infinite number of other geological wonders!), just two hours from both Bryce Canyon National Park and off-roading mecca Moab.
Capitol Reef isn’t by any means inaccessible, but it is largely overlooked. 981,038 people visited Capitol Reef in 2020, while well over half that number — 520,987 — visited Zion National Park in September 2020 alone!
Massive, awe-inspiring rock formations are the stars of the show at Capitol Reef. Well, those and hiking — don’t miss Hickman Bridge, Chimney Rock, and Cassidy Arch!). The lack of crowds only makes it more enjoyable, allowing you to take your time and truly take in the vast landscape.
Explore the natural arches, monoliths, steep canyons, and the park’s distinguishing feature, the Waterpocket Fold. This monocline is a very literal wrinkle in the earth’s surface, spanning nearly 100 miles and towering nearly 7,000 feet above the valley in some places. The scar-like geological phenomenon is so big it is easily seen from space!
Insider tip: Don’t miss the tiny pioneer settlement of Fruita. Today, park employees live there, but you can visit the historic one-room schoolhouse and pick your own fruit from the orchards. For $1 a pound, you can bring home fresh apples, pears, cherries, walnuts, peaches, and more.
Fun fact: Despite being one of the most underrated national parks, Capitol Reef gets its name from one of the country’s most recognizable landmarks. “Capitol” refers to the white Navajo sandstone domes that resemble the U.S. Capitol, while “Reef” is because the terrain looks like coral.
Where to stay near Capitol Reef National Park: The Fruita Campground is lovely, with 71 sites that have grills, picnic tables, and running water. For luxury family-friendly accommodations nearby, head to The Lodge at Red River Ranch in Teasdale.
Channel Islands National Park, California
Channel Islands National Park consists of 5 of the 8 Channel Islands off the coast of southern California (Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara).
The islands are remote and there is no transportation available when you get there. However, they are perfect for those who like hiking, diving, kayaking, snorkeling, birdwatching, whale-watching, or just relaxing in pristine nature.
There are giant kelp forests surrounding the islands, with seals, sea lions, and bright orange garibaldi fish. There are also miles of rocky shoreline and sea caverns to explore, sandy beaches, and wonderful hiking trails.
The park has two visitor centers on the mainland, in Santa Barbara and Ventura. To get to the islands, you need to take a boat or fly.
Boats leave from Ventura to all the islands and from Oxnard to Anacapa. On-demand flights are available from Camarillo Airport to Santa Rosa and San Miguel. In addition, sightseeing, whale-watching, and diving boats visit the islands.
Insider tip: If you plan to camp on one of the islands, book your boat (or plane) to the island first. The boats fill up more quickly than the campgrounds, and you aren’t allowed to book a campground unless you can prove you have a way to get there and back.
Fun fact: The original 1924 Peter Pan film was filmed on Santa Cruz. The island’s sea caves also inspired several Pirates of the Caribbean sets.
Where to stay near Channel Islands National Park: There are no services or lodgings on any of the islands, so most people visit on a day trip.
However, each of the islands has a primitive campground, and staying there gives you a chance to really enjoy and appreciate this wonderful national park. The campground on Santa Rosa is an especially great choice because it has drinkable water and bathroom facilities.
Contributed by James Ian from Parks Collecting
Crater Lake National Park, Oregon
With its remote location within the Cascade Range of Southwest Oregon, Crater Lake is one of the most underrated national parks in the US.
Crater Lake formed over 7,700 years ago when a volcanic eruption took down the peak of Mount Mazama, a 12,000-foot volcano. Once the hole cooled, it filled with rainwater and snowmelt for over 600-800 years. The bold blue and purity of the water that remains today will take your breath away.
Visitors can view Crater Lake by driving the 33-mile Rim Road and admiring different perspectives from the many pullouts along the route. Several hiking trails also offer breathtaking views that you simply cannot get from exploring only from the road.
The most popular time to visit Crater Lake is during the summer months, as some of the roads close during winter. Another thing to note is that there are limited dining options near Crater Lake. The most highly rated are Annie Creek Restaurant, Rim Village Café, and the Crater Lake Lodge Dining Room.
Insider tip: Discovery Point Trail is one of the easiest hikes in the park, while still being incredibly scenic. It’s a flat one-mile trail to the Discovery Point viewpoint. You will have jaw-dropping views of Crater Lake and Wizard Island.
Fun fact: Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the United States (1,943 feet), and one of the cleanest and clearest in the entire world! That alone should make this one of your top must-visit national parks.
Where to stay near Crater Lake National Park: There are both camping and lodging options at Crater Lake. Camp at Mazama Campground to experience the pure nature of Crater Lake. If camping isn’t your style, the historic Crater Lake Lodge is located on the rim of Mount Mazama’s crater and has incredible views of the park.
Contributed by Debbie Fettback from WorldAdventurists.com
Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio
Cuyahoga Valley National Park is still an underrated national park in the US and the ONLY national park in Ohio. It sits between Cleveland and Akron, runs along the Cuyahoga Valley River, and was declared a national park as recently as 2000.
There are 20 miles of hiking, biking, and horse trails, the most well-known being the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail. For winter travelers, there is a Winter Sports Complex with ski trails, ski resorts, and sledding hills nearby.
Two other must-see sites in any season are Brandywine Falls, a beautiful 60-foot waterfall, and Ritchie Ledges, an exciting trail through mossy rocks and crevices made from glaciers millions of years ago.
Insider tip: One of the best times to visit Cuyahoga Valley National Park is during the winter holiday season when the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad transforms into the Polar Express and takes visitors through the park to the North Pole.
Fun fact: It’s totally FREE to enter Cuyahoga Valley National Park!
Where to stay near Cuyahoga Valley National Park: There are many vacation rentals and hotels near Cleveland and Akron.
If you want to stay in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, there’s an old mill converted into a quaint little inn: The Inn at Brandywine Falls. It’s been restored and welcomes guests who want to escape to paradise inside the national park.
Contributed by Michelle Moyer from Moyer Memoirs
Death Valley National Park, California
The largest national park in the lower 48 by size, Death Valley is also one of the most underrated national parks in the United States. Many visitors to California tend to skip it entirely because of its reputation as the hottest, lowest, and driest place in North America.
While Death Valley is all of those things, it’s also well worth a visit. The park boasts clear dark skies perfect for stargazing, wonderful and enigmatic landscapes such as Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Racetrack Playa, and Badwater Basin, and plenty of solitude — something hard to come by in many popular national parks.
To learn about other cool places to see in the park, check out my article on 10 things to do in Death Valley National Park.
Insider tip: For the best experience, visit Death Valley during winter and early spring, when you can hike, enjoy the outdoors, camp, and picnic. It’s a great time to explore everything Death Valley has to offer, as temperatures hover around the high 60s and low 70s. That’s a far cry from July, when the average daily temperature is 116 degrees!
Fun fact: The hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth was in Death Valley. It reached 134 degrees in July 1913.
Where to stay near Death Valley National Park: If you’re looking for a nice hotel within the national park’s boundaries, check out Death Valley Inn. Just outside the park, Amargosa Opera House is another great option.
Contributed by Daria Fettback from The Discovery Nut
Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida
Dry Tortugas National Park is just 70 miles from Key West, but it’s difficult to access, which makes it one of the least visited parks. It includes several small islands and a historic fort, but most of the park is actually open ocean and you can only reach it via seaplane or boat.
Snorkeling is the most popular activity in Dry Tortugas, and the stunningly blue waters are perfect for seeing reefs and tropical fish. Most visitors take day trips, arriving via ferry or seaplanes that dock at Fort Jefferson.
Visitors can tour the fort independently, even going all the way up to the grassy top for the best views of the island’s turquoise waters. Use caution, as walkways can be uneven and there aren’t many areas with guardrails on the top level.
Insider tip: The islands in Dry Tortugas are important nesting sites for several bird species, and some areas are only open seasonally to avoid interference with them. If birdwatching interests you, check the website for migratory seasons so you can plan your trip during the ideal time of the year.
Fun fact: The highest elevation in the park is 10 feet above sea level, on Loggerhead Key.
Where to stay near Dry Tortugas National Park: Sure, you can stay in a Key West hotel or vacation rental and take a day trip to Dry Tortugas. However, you’d miss out on some of the clearest skies and most epic sunsets anywhere!
Consider camping at the small first-come, first-served campground next to Fort Jefferson. It’s rustic camping and you must bring in all of your gear, so it’s only recommended only for those with prior camping experience.
You also have to do a great deal of planning ahead if you want to camp in Dry Tortugas, as seaplanes won’t transport camping gear. Once the day-trippers depart and you’re on the quiet island under endless skies, you’ll appreciate all the preparation and planning.
Contributed by Kris from Nomad by Trade
Everglades National Park, Florida
US national parks are some of the best places for nature and outdoors lovers. But when you’re looking for less-traveled, underrated national parks to explore, Everglades National Park should be at the top of your list.
The Florida Everglades is a unique wilderness ecosystem in south Florida. It’s a slow-moving “river of grass” that provides habitat to 1.5 million acres of sawgrass marshes, mangrove forests, and hardwood hammocks, not to mention rare and endangered wildlife species from black bear to saltwater crocodiles.
To fully experience Everglades National Park, plan on hiking grassy trails and elevated boardwalks or kayaking the shallow waters, lakes, and mangrove tunnels. Or, take an airboat ride for a fun and thrilling way to see wildlife.
Insider tip: If you don’t mind the heat of south Florida, summer is one of the best times to visit Everglades National Park. Summer rains bring an abundance of alligators, manatees, dolphins, deer, and other wildlife. Otherwise, winter is better for hiking, when mosquitoes and other insects are at bay.
Fun fact: The Everglades is one of the rainiest places in the country, receiving an average of 60 inches of rain. As a reference point, Seattle gets about 38 inches!
Where to stay near Everglades National Park: If you like camping, Everglades National Park has several fantastic campgrounds with tent and RV sites. Flamingo Campground is one of the best. There are also secluded chickee huts, unique over-water camping platforms.
Contributed by Lori Sorrentino from Naples Florida Travel Guide
Looking for more unforgettable things to do in Everglades National Park?
Great Basin National Park, Nevada
One of the most underrated national parks in the US is Great Basin National Park, located in Nevada near the Utah border.
What’s great about this park is its variety of landscapes. For example, there are mountains (like 13,065-foot Wheeler Peak, one of the tallest in the state!), rivers, deserts, caves, and more. This vast diversity makes Great Basin one of the top must-see national parks.
The Lehman Caves are an absolute must in Great Basin. They’re beautiful, ancient caves with all kinds of unique stone formations and “rooms.” Note that the only way to see Lehman Caves is via a guided tour, and you must make reservations in advance.
Another great thing to do at the park is stargazing. That’s because the park is extremely dark at night, so there are many places to get a beautiful view of the sky!
Insider tip: The best time to go to Great Basin for stargazing is during summer, when the weather is best. Another thing to keep in mind is to look at the phase of the moon. When the moon is very bright, it’s harder to see other objects (like stars) in the sky.
Fun fact: The Great Basin Desert is the largest desert in the US at just under 200,000 square miles. It covers most of Nevada and extends into California, Idaho, Oregon, and Utah.
Where to stay near Great Basin National Park: Because the park is so remote, lodging options are somewhat limited. However, there are some excellent options. I recommend the La Quinta by Wyndham Ely.
Contributed by Dymphe from Dymabroad
Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
America’s least-visited national park sounds like it belongs in Alaska: it’s a super remote island that visitors can only reach via seaplane or five-hour ferry ride.
This is Isle Royale National Park, situated on Michigan’s Lake Superior. Situated in the northern part of the lake, the 450-island archipelago offers visitors excellent hiking, backpacking, fishing, paddling, and scuba diving.
Isle Royale is ringed by countless shallow reefs and sits directly in the path of large freighter boats. The area has been historically treacherous for ships, and today there are 10 major shipwrecks divers can explore. The park service also offers several guided boat tours and provides canoe and kayak rentals.
Important note: Only experienced paddlers should kayak or canoe on Lake Superior, as the water is more like an ocean than a lake and weather conditions change rapidly. NPS states that “Recreational kayaks are not appropriate for Isle Royale’s marine environment – sea kayaks are recommended.”
For those who prefer to explore on land, Isle Royale has plenty to offer. Embark on a wilderness backpacking trip or go on a day hike.
Rock Harbor, on the island’s northeast end, and Windigo in the southeast both have several trails ranging from short and sweet to long and challenging. There are also four lighthouses to explore, each one named on the National Register of Historic Places.
Insider tip: If you want to fish Lake Superior, you must get a Michigan fishing license. However, you can fish Isle Royale’s many inland lakes without a license.
Fun fact: Lake Superior is the largest freshwater body of water in the world. It’s also very cold, with the temperature rarely rising above 50 degrees. Pack a wetsuit if you plan to swim or go boating!
Where to stay on Isle Royale National Park: Because of the effort involved in getting to Isle Royale, you definitely want to spend at least a night or two.
Joshua Tree National Park, California
Joshua Tree, one of the country’s most underrated national parks, transports you to “The Outer Limits of Reality” — yet it’s close enough to visit as a day trip from Palm Springs, Los Angeles, or San Diego.
It’s so otherworldly and vast that Star Wars scenes were filmed there! The park covers 800,000 acres with mountains, wide deserts, and the infamous Joshua trees.
March and April are perfect for visiting this national park, when temperatures are in the 70s. It’s not too hot for hiking, biking, horseback riding, four-wheeling, bouldering, or climbing. If you’re lucky, you might see the springtime bloom of colorful desert wildflowers, which is short-lived but spectacular.
Insider tip: Plan your Joshua Tree National Park itinerary around four distinct, must-see areas:
- Indian Cove – Explore the Wonderland of the Rocks
- Skull Rock – An iconic site that also has a beginner 1.7-mile nature trail
- Keys Views – A panoramic view of Coachella Valley from the highest point in the park
- Cholla Cactus Garden – Get up close (safely!) to Joshua trees and enjoy a flat walking trail loop
Fun fact: Six different mountain ranges lie within the park, as well as both the high Mojave Desert and the low Colorado Desert.
Where to stay: We love to stay in bed & breakfasts when we travel and highly recommend The Campbell House in Twenty-Nine Palms. The quaint, relaxing, and elegant B&B is just minutes from the park’s North Entrance and Visitor Center.
Contributed by Monica from A Planner at Heart
Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
Mammoth Cave National Park may be one of the most underrated national parks in the US, but it shouldn’t be! Mammoth Cave is the longest known cave system in the world, and it’s the perfect park for anyone who loves exploring caves, learning about history, or relaxing in nature.
One of the most popular things to do in Mammoth Cave National Park is, of course, to go on a cave tour. Whether you’re more interested in geology or history, or simply want to explore, there are a variety of tours to choose from on a daily basis. Just be sure to book your tour in advance, because they do sell out.
Hiking in Mammoth Cave National Park is also a great way to explore. There are several hiking trails including the River Styx, Sunset Point, and Cedar Sink trails.
Insider tip: Book a wild cave tour if you want to explore Mammoth Cave off the beaten path!
Fun fact: A little over 400 miles of Mammoth Cave have been mapped, but researchers believe there are another 600 miles that still haven’t been explored!
Where to stay near Mammoth Cave National Park: Family-friendly Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park Mammoth Cave is just minutes away in — where else? —Cave City.
Contributed by Gabby from Journey to the Destination
Pinnacles National Park, California
Don’t make the mistake of skipping one of America’s most underrated national parks, Pinnacles in California. The volcanic rock formations make a Pinnacles National Park day trip or weekend camping experience well worth it, especially if you visit at the right time of year.
Start by choosing the side of the park you want to visit, as they don’t connect. The east entrance offers the most hiking opportunities, but the west entrance attracts fewer visitors.
Don’t miss scenic Bear Gulch Reservoir, which is a great spot for a post-hike picnic. And while you’re at Pinnacles, you should take the opportunity to explore the Bear Gulch or Balconies caves. If you like a challenge, go rock climbing or try the High Peaks and Balconies Cave Loop hike for stunning views.
Insider tip: Visit during the late winter and early spring months to see beautiful wildflowers covering the park’s rocky hillsides. Temperatures average 93°F during the summer months and there’s not a lot of shade, so summer visits can be unpleasant.
Fun fact: Over 400 species of bees live in Pinnacles National Park — believed to be the largest concentration in the world.
Where to stay near Pinnacles National Park: Stay close to the action by camping in one of the tent, RV, or cabin sites in the park.
If your heart is set on comfort, you can stay at the Hampton Inn & Suites in Salinas, which is a 45-minute drive from the park’s west entrance. Or try the Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott in Hollister, about 40 minutes from the east entrance.
Contributed by Katherine Fenech from Bright Lights of America
Redwood National Park, California
Redwood National Park is often overshadowed by California’s other more famous parks. In the northernmost part of the state, this must-see national park provides solitude amongst giant trees.
The coastal redwood trees found in Redwood National Park are the tallest trees in the entire world. Here, you can hike and camp under the trees to see them up close.
But there’s more than just trees: you’ll also find miles of scenic drives along the rugged Pacific Coast. Thanks to the coastal breeze, the park has comfortable temperatures all year long. It’s the perfect place to visit in the off-season.
One of the best trails in the park, Tall Trees Grove, is home to the world’s tallest tree, 380-foot-tall Hyperion. Hikes to Fern Canyon and Cathedral Tree Loop also belong on your Redwood National Park itinerary! Want to see the redwoods without having to hike? Take a scenic drive along Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway.
Insider tip: Make reservations for Tall Trees Grove online ahead of your trip, as permits are required. The permit is free and you can apply as early as four weeks before your intended hike, up to 48 hours prior.
Fun fact: There’s a very good reason California redwoods only grow near the coast: they depend heavily on fog as a water source! The trees’ needles absorb fog as it condenses, and any leftover droplets fall to the forest floor, providing water to the roots.
Where to Stay near Redwood National Park: Enjoy historic Eureka and explore California’s “Lost Coast” from the Carter House Inns, just minutes from the national park.
Contributed by Julia from Well Planned Journey
Saguaro National Park, Arizona
Saguaro National Park is just outside of Tucson, which you would think makes it super popular. And while it could be, it’s simply not a park you hear much about. In fact, it’s one of the country’s most underrated national parks.
Not only is Saguaro great for hiking, but you can see some of the coolest plants (saguaro cactus) in the country here. And I mean cool.
Of course, the saguaros are the big draw to the park, and for good reason. Every time I saw a bigger or better one, I said, “They’re SO AMAZING!” It’s super easy to find solitude on the trails and you might even see some wildlife.
A lot of people wonder which side of Saguaro is better, and I’m here to tell you the west side is. If you’re limited on time, definitely stick to the west.
And no matter which side you’re visiting, make sure to put in the Red Hills Visitor Center (west) or Rincon Mountain Visitor Center (east) when you’re using Google Maps. Otherwise, navigation will take you to some random spot in the park, probably on a dirt road.
Insider tip: If you really want a show, try to visit in late May when the saguaros bloom. However, be prepared that the temperatures will be in the 90s or low 100s.
Fun fact: The Sonoran Desert, which spans from Arizona into California, Mexico, and Baja California, is the only place on Earth where saguaro cacti grow.
Where to stay near Saguaro National Park: Get an authentic taste of the Old West with a stay at White Stallion Ranch, located just adjacent to Saguaro National Park West. Enjoy trail rides, archery lessons, shooting, hiking, and more. Plus, it’s convenient enough for easy access to everything Tucson has to offer.
Contributed by Megan from Red Around the World
So what do you think — which is your favorite among America’s most underrated national parks? Have you visited any of these, and are there others that should be on the list?
Let me know in the comments, and be sure to save this article to Pinterest for planning your national parks vacations later on!